Proponents of women’s rights, including many so-called feminists, talk a lot about protecting women’s right to choose. Yet, when it comes to women’s right to choose how, when and for whom they work, women’s advocates are noticeably absent.
On Thursday, the U.S. Senate will debate the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, better known as the PRO Act. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said the union-backed PRO Act will be included in a $3.5 trillion spending package, which Democrats aim to pass using reconciliation, a legislative tool that negates the need for Republican support. In addition to repealing states’ right-to-work laws and forcing millions to pay new union dues regardless of their wishes, the PRO Act would amend the definition of an employee, drastically limiting who is allowed to work as an independent contractor (or freelance worker), subjecting millions of the nation’s 57 million freelance workers to new employment models they didn’t ask for or choose.
Of those 57 million freelance workers who stand to have their careers upended, nearly half are women.
Prior to the pandemic, women were thriving, making up the majority of the college-educated workforce. But since COVID-19 began, 2.5 million women have dropped out of the workforce, including 1.5 million working mothers.
President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have called the situation a “national emergency.” U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo told Fortune that businesses and policymakers are “underestimating the size and magnitude of the problem.”
Yet, the solution the Biden administration is proposing strangely ignores actual women’s wants and needs.
According to a 2018 survey, flexibility is important to 94 percent of women in the gig economy. Another survey of gig workers found that 71 percent said the “freedom of being an independent contractor outweighs the benefits of being an employee.” Nearly half of freelancers depend on contract work because personal circumstances such as health issues and family obligations prevent them from working traditional jobs.
By reducing women’s ability to have a flexible career and schedule work around school, doctors’ appointments, and other priorities, the PRO Act could force millions of women into an all-or-nothing choice. That’s what’s already happened in California. Because a version of the PRO Act’s new employment classification standard was embraced by the state, Monica Wyman, a Hispanic mother of three who started her own floral design business, can no longer legally hire freelance workers to help with weddings and other special events. Weddings are sporadic and seasonal, so hiring traditional employees isn’t an option. But without extra help, she can’t sustain her small business.
“I should not have to close my business because I cannot hire in extra help on occasion,” Wyman said. “I don’t even have the words to describe how bad this has been for our family.”
Not only is a government policy threatening to put Wyman out of business, it has also driven a community of mothers Wyman used to employ on a freelance basis out of work. These are women who wanted to take care of their families during the week, and work weddings on weekends for extra enjoyment and income.
The PRO Act might have been designed with the intention of improving workers’ benefits, but it is a deeply flawed piece of legislation that prioritizes union profits over choice. Look no further than California to see its effects, where more than 100 industries successfully sought special carve-outs and exemptions, and workers have been clamoring to be free from the limitations.
Increasing the availability of flexible work for working mothers and caregivers is a goal that unites all sides of the political spectrum. The PRO Act is not only an obstacle to achieving that goal, but a direct attack.
Worse, the PRO Act is a direct attack on the American dream, where every citizen has the right to work independently in a way that fits his or her particular wants and needs.
Working freelance is a choice. No individual or law prevents Americans from seeking a traditional, union-backed job that proponents of the PRO Act so fondly promote. On the flip side, the PRO Act would make it more difficult for Americans to opt out of the traditional, union-backed employment structure, potentially leaving millions of workers with an all-or-nothing choice. For caregivers and working mothers, this hardly meets the definition of “choice.”